Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 6: Ernst Mayr and the "Biology of Birds"

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Chapter 6: Ernst Mayr and the "Biology of Birds"

Article excerpt


Too often, formal publications structure the narratives we historians build. It is our legacy from intellectual history and the desire for declarative statements. It is also a measure of the convenience of published books and papers. We often forget, however, how these literary products stand in for activities that go much further - tips of icebergs comprising lives as lived. Sometimes tiiose tips represent pinnacles; sometimes, peripheral edges. Sometimes, too, they are unrepresentative and distract biographers away from more revealing paths. Historical stuthes risk failure when the relationship between books and lived Uves goes unexamined.

The narrative of Ernst Mayr's Ufe (1904-2005) has been grounded firmly in literary products that carry his name (Mayr, 1942, 1963; Mayr, Linsley, & Usinger, 1953). Bock (1994, 2005) and Haffer (1997, 2002, 2005) have done splendid work stretching our biographical knowledge beyond Mayr's main publications to give a robust sense of overarching research programs and legacies inherited from mentors. Others, too, had added significant pieces to this biographical puzzle (Beatty, 1994; Burkhardt, 1994; Gill, 1994; LeCroy, 2005; Lein, 2005).

Two series of stuthes- one by me (Cain, 1993, 1994, 2000, 2002a, 2004); another by Smocovitis (1994a, 1994b) - approached Mayr in a different way. They reconstructed his considerable activities as "community architect" in evolutionary stuthes. This focused attention on efforts to create and co-opt professional and research infrastructure to advance evolutionary theory and evolutionary systematics. This was work "behind the scenes" of traditional publication-based research. Of course, Mayr was not the only person doing this, but he certainly was one of the most productive. Later work on the same line by Mayr in systematics continued diat story (Cain, 2004a). Collectively, these stuthes made the point fairly plain. Mayr was no mere administrator, and this attention to infrastructure added important elements to his intellectual goals. This was active, purposeful management, even though it sometimes included rather individualistic ends within cooperative and communal means.

It is hard to imagine Ernst Mayr without the book that made him famous, Systematics and the Origin of Species (Mayr, 1942b). After all, it is what he wanted us to remember, especially after moving in 1953 to a Harvard professorship. It was no accident he wrote little by way of personal autobiography, but much intellectual autobiography (e.g., Mayr, 1980, 1982, 1984, 1992a). (And we must not forget how much we spectators pushed it upon him for our own reasons.) So strong is the emphasis on this book in ours and his own recollections that many of us have been perfecdy content to have Mayr appear in our narratives deus ex machina circa 1940 to set straight a confused gaggle of biologists and to launch his geographical theory of speciation.

In my own writing and speaking about Mayr, I have frequendy noted the importance of his career prior to writing Systematics and the Origin of Species, offering tidbits but no systematic analysis. In the present chapter, I aim to flesh out this picture more fully. Following Bock and Haffer, I argue a rather different Mayr emerges if we build our picture starting from the beginning of his career. Some specific turns in his life grow in importance. Crucially, Mayr's turn into evolutionary theory around 1940 came as something of a surprise, a road taken when numerous alternatives were equally likely. What Mayr imported into evolutionary biology was far from novel. This is true both for specific concepts and for the overall approach he advocated. Focusing on the later consequences of this turn obscures Mayr's role in this period. It also obscures a much larger intellectual program, the biology of birds.


The general shape of Mayr's start is well known (Bock, 1994; 2005; Cain, 2002a; Haffer, 1997; 2005). …

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